I remember my first Summer League experience like my first drink. Underage, over prepared, and perhaps a bit woozy from extracurricular night-lounging, I clutched my ticket in hand, bought months before, ready to waft through the air of professional hoops from NBA players through the turnstiles in my heart. My friends and I reserved a whole row on the lower bowl - not knowing that this didn't matter in the slightest - hoping to catch glimpses of our favorite, obscure college players. I was ready for Summer League.
I thought my ears had failed me. The lonely squeaking of shoes on hardwood, a single ball bouncing, bouncing, bouncing, and the perpetual whistle, signalling another turnover permeated the air the instant I entered Thomas and Mack. I looked for my seats, finding it occupied by an older gentleman in a Jason Mraz fedora, worn-out flip flops and a blurry media credential. I sat two rows in front, within earshot distance of Jeremy Lamb, who looked as bored as Wesley Matthews, a seasoned veteran playing against rookies. I was in awe, for a whole different reason.
There were certainly moments of fulfillment - Royce White full court passes, Damian Lillard aerial shows, and Jimmer Fredette jacking shots with his teammates blatantly looking dismayed. But the most memorable moment? The Dairy Queens vendor's show: making my first ever DG milkshake, flipping around the bill of his cap, tilting the open cup backwards while I yelped out in terror, only to guffaw as nothing fell out. Summer League: where everything is upside down. And there's not a single thing wrong with that.
Unfortunately, I won't be heading there until the second weekend this time, staying only for the Friday and Saturday games (real life sucks). But watching the games from afar are much more tangibly important that when you're there, fighting external factors while glancing through dry pupils the Golden State Warriors running iso after iso. The Summer League, through the crappy play and relaxing atmosphere, is about the fun features - try to name that player's college games - and most importantly, lack of expectations. We're not watching to see if Nemanja Nedovic can hold down the guard position so the Warriors can trade Klay Thompson (I hope?).
The perspectives are flipped through the TV set and real life, where conversing and walking around (in shorts, no less) are encouraged in the arena while fans so in need of basketball during the offseason that the mere sight of Kentavious Caldwell-Pope shooting with a J.R. Smith-conscience satisfies the appetite. In an entity by itself, separated from the rest of the world, Vegas is an upside-down DQ chocolate milkshake in viewership style and quality of play.
This isn't a condescending piece on how to watch glorified crappy pickup hoops on a pseudo-professional level but a plea and invite to trudge into the arena, heavy-headed and trying desperately to avoid the smell of failure. I'd admit I was confusing the difference between Vegas casinos and the games at hand but the moment you stare in horror, and awe, as a first-round pick shrugs three of his teammates off into a rock-back isolation fadeaway, well, that's Summer League.